It took a while, but the ugly little secret of the 2008 presidential race bubbled to the surface in New Hampshire yesterday.
Race matters. And people lie.
Of all the polls conducted after Barack Obama's Iowa victory, only one predicted a close election, and none projected a Clinton victory. On the Republican side, the polls appeared to be pretty accurate. So what happened?
When that many polls agree, especially a couple with robust sample size, then the possibility of sampling error diminishes. There is only one plausible explanation for the huge disparity of the polls and the outcome of the election: Lying.
Lying is a common occurrence in poll surveys and it greatly influences the results. And it's the one bias that pollsters have a hard time controlling. The biggest cause for lying, in American politics, is typically race.
This was a taboo subject. And after Obama's resounding victory in the overwhelmingly white Iowa Caucus, it seemed like a non-starter. But in New Hampshire, it played a big role.
New Hampshire's voters are older and crankier than Iowa's voters. The medium age in New Hampshire is almost two years older than the national average, placing it and neighboring Vermont as two of the oldest states in the union. Large colleges, where Obama's young voter initiative succeeded spectacularly in Iowa, are not prominent in the New Hampshire landscape.
In other words, your grandma probably won't be for Obama. And lots of grandmas voted in New Hampshire.
With Obama riding on the victory wave from Iowa, many of the poll respondents in New Hampshire felt compelled to answer Obama when asked whom they'd vote for. But the reality is that either they never had any intention of voting for him (lying) or were simply unsettled on the choice but decided Obama would be the right answer (equivocating).
The result is a surprise Clinton victory. Her camp no doubt will mark this as the turning point of the campaign and anoint her as the "Comeback Gal," as her husband Bill was similarly dubbed in 1992. But this win will prove Pyrrhic for a number of reasons.
1) Clinton cannot count on an electorate as friendly as the one in New Hampshire again. Her base, put it bluntly, is women, particularly older women, which New Hampshire has in abundance. More women voted than men in New Hampshire and they opted for Hillary by a whopping 13-point margin. Even with such support, she only eked out a narrow victory.
2) You can only use the ace in the hole once. The crying game obviously worked. It's even noted by some in the Clinton camp as a key event. The problem is: It worked only in New Hampshire and it will only work once. If anyone suspects her of cynical manipulation, then it may only be confirmed should she try it again. I normally do not agree with virtually anything Maureen Dowd has to say, but her column is definitely worth a read.
3) African-Americans are fired up and rearin' to go. Up to this point, very few black people have had a chance to vote and have their voice heard, as both Iowa and New Hampshire are overwhelmingly white. But after Iowa, blacks are convinced that Obama is a legitimate candidate and his narrow loss in New Hampshire changes nothing. In fact, it serves to reinforce how much support he will need from African-American voters. The next key state in the primary season is South Carolina, where black turnout will be high and most of it will be for Obama.
4) Obama runs better as an underdog. The narrow loss allows Obama to sling back and play the role of an upstart fighting the establishment. That's his message and he plays it effectively. In New Hampshire there was palpable confusion in the Obama camp on how to handle the sudden and new found front-runner status. No worries now.
5) The New Hampshire result was affirmation, not repudiation, of Obama's electability versus Hillary's. Obama nearly doubled Hillary's votes among independents. This despite his more liberal and left-wing politics. The perception is that he's the candidate who's more capable of eliciting a look from those sitting on the fence. Hillary, for the most part, is preaching to the converted.
Make no mistake, the Iowa Caucus is still the earthquake event. New Hampshire merely prolongs Hillary's viability until at least "Tsunami Tuesday" on Feb. 5. The setback will force Obama's camp to be more focused and more desperate, which is the optimum condition it operates under. The Clintons, on the other hand, may be lulled back into the "inevitability" mindset.
Inevitably, that's a losing proposition.